Mr. Compson is a decaying Southern gentleman. We say that with the greatest respect, of course. We actually like the guy a lot. After all, at least he has a sense of humor. And he can pick out a rotten egg from a mile away. Perhaps that’s why he can’t stand his brother-in-law, Maury. When we say that Mr. Compson is decaying, then, we really mean that he’s just…given up. Maybe we should say that he’s actually well preserved. Pickled, really. He drinks himself into a stupor, and then he drinks himself to death.
Wait a second. We said we liked the guy? Well, yes, we do. See, he’s been dealt a pretty raw hand. He’s got these kids that he loves, but he’s also got a wife who’s a bit of a terror. Mr. Compson would prefer to ignore her entirely, but there’s just no way that she would ever let that happen.
What Mr. Compson is able to accomplish, however, is drilling a sense of gentleman-like conduct into Quentin. Of course, this sort of Southern morality comes coupled with a good dose of existential despair…and Quentin inherits most of it. Mr. Compson’s full of witty, depressing bits of advice. Here are a few good samples:
It's not when you realise that nothing can help you--religion, pride, anything--it's when you realise that you dont need any aid. (2.16)
Bad health is the primary reason for all life. Created by disease, within putrefaction, into decay. (1.565)
In other words, he’s not exactly an upper. Then again, considering the family that he has to deal with, maybe he’s not doing so badly.
Mr. Compson is well-educated. Perhaps that’s why one of his dreams is to see Quentin go to Harvard. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Compson comes alive to readers most vividly in Quentin’s section: he’s shaped Quentin’s very being. As Quentin becomes less and less able to understand the world around him, he relies more and more on the memory of conversations with his father. By the end of Quentin’s section, Mr. Compson exists for us only as a voice in Quentin’s head. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. From what we can tell, Mr. C was working pretty hard to eradicate his body, anyway.